Surviving Norovirus at a Food Safety Conference

When I close my eyes, I can perfectly envision the first bite I took of that dripping slab of brisket, the flavors exciting every taste bud on my already-salivating tongue. Even the smoky-sweet aroma comes back to me with vivid force. I can still feel the beads of sweat forming on my skin on that sticky summer night in Atlanta, sitting under the eaves of that small hole-in-the-wall BBQ gem.

The sad thing is that now when I recall this experience to mind, an instant gag reflex kicks in. Even typing this up a year later is making my stomach churn.

How did my love of brisket become an instant gag trigger? As you may know, it’s almost impossible to tell where you may have picked up a foodborne illness when you’re the only one you know who got sick. It takes at least hours, if not days for a virus or bacteria to incubate in your digestive tract to the point of vomiting and diarrhea, and yet you’ll always remember what the illness forces back out of you.

It may not have even been the brisket that set off a terrible 24-hour chain of events. It could have been the tacos from lunch, the corned beef hash from breakfast, or even the sliced melon snack I had before jumping on the plane the night before (a surprisingly more likely culprit, in fact!). But I know what came out of me that night and I’ve never looked at brisket the same way.

And do you want to know the irony of it? I was in Atlanta to attend the AFDO conference being held there. For those of you who aren’t aware, AFDO stands for Association of Food and Drug Officials. My whole purpose in being there was to learn more about how to keep food safe from the very sickness that was now destroying me. After only one day of conference activities, I was practically exploding from both ends and stuck in my hotel room the next day.

As a professional in the food safety training industry, I was able to pinpoint my sudden illness relatively quickly. I had Norovirus.

Norovirus is one of the most common foodborne illnesses in the world. Whenever someone gets food poisoning, more often than not it’s due to this wonderful little bug.

Knowing what I had, I knew I’d feel mostly better after 24 hours. I also knew that I would be contagious for another 24 hours after that. So, what should I do? I had work responsibilities at this conference. There were things I needed to learn and people I needed to meet.

For the first day, when the symptoms were really working me, I did the responsible thing — I stayed in the hotel room playing games on my phone, reading papers, editing documents and responding to emails. Then, after I was out of the woods physically, I decided that I had a responsibility to take every precaution to not get others sick.

This same responsibility is given to all food workers everywhere (and is a courtesy that hopefully every member of society shares!). When you’re sick, STAY HOME! When you return, limit your work responsibilities to activities that keep you away from people and food for at least 24 hours, and, most importantly, WASH YOUR HANDS.

So, I went about the next two days of the conference keeping in mind to keep my hands clean. I washed my hands after using the restroom, before walking through the lunch buffet line (to keep my germs off that serving spoon!), and regularly throughout the day. As a result, my colleague who shared the hotel room with me never got sick. Nor did the participants in the group exercises I took part in at the conference, or anyone else that I know of, because I stayed in my hotel while I was physically sick and took care to wash my hands thoroughly and frequently while I was contagious.

I may never look at brisket the same way again, and my heart hurts because of that. But I can rest easy knowing that I did my part in keeping others safe from my virus.

So how did I know what illness I had and what I should do to keep others from such a terrible fate? It all came down to my knowledge of what foodborne illness is and how it spreads. If I hadn’t had food safety training, I might have made different decisions, with some very unsavory results for everyone around me.

Every time a food worker is feeling sick, they have choices to make. Should they go to work with their symptoms? If they do go to work, what duties can they perform? Are there any special precautions they need to take to help keep others safe?

Our food handlers and food manager training courses answer all these questions, and so much more! Not only do we aim to teach food workers what they need to know to get their required certificate, we aspire to teach food safety principles so well that their attitudes and behavior are changed forever. 

If you’re looking for food safety training for your company, feel free to reach out. We’d love to talk with you about your training needs.

— Thomas Larsen

Updated: July 6, 2020 — 9:54 pm
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